THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH by the Oldest Record in History

Are you mongrels ready to talk about Gilgamesh? Okay, let's talk about the king of heroes then! Embarrassingly enough, I myself only discovered Gilgamesh last year when I was teaching World History to a few of my students, and one of the lessons was about ancient civilizations. For a story that is considered to be a very old one--if not one of the oldest ever recorded in human history--The Epic of Gilgamesh sure retained a rather comfortable status of obscurity, mostly because we're more inclined to talk about the Egyptians, and the Romans and Greeks, mythology-wise. We know about Hercules, the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and Cleopatra, and cursed pharaohs and haunting mummies because they are basic Hollywood fodder--but we have yet to have anyone adapt the story of Gilgamesh on screen. And IT'S A COSMICALLY UNFAIR INJUSTICE. 

The closest thing we get in the meantime is a re-imagined version of him in the Japanese light novel and anime Fate/Zero where I absolutely fucking devoured him; excusing the fact that his appearance is racially inaccurate but hot damn, the golden-haired and ivory-skinned magnificence that is F/Z's Gilgamesh is to die for! He indisputably brought sexy back, okay? 

It's this version of the epic hero that has gotten me so intrigued, and so I decided to read the actual canon itself--by not reading it because I have other books scheduled. That's what audiobooks are for, yo! With only four tracks, each running thirty-four minutes or so, my experiences for The Epic of Gilgamesh is nothing short of magical and hilarious!

I know what you're thinking: "Oh, a classic, that's great! But it's translated from an ancient language so the prose has to be dry and droll and I don't have time to read about it because I have my Fifty Shades and my other raunchy romance novels. Who wants to read about some dead king from Mesopotamia anyway?" And you know what, you're right except for the parts about the prose being dry, and that you read Fifty Shades because if you are then yeah, you're wrong in the head. I will say though that hearing someone else read me this epic is so much more satisfying. So why should you read/listen to The Epic of Gilgamesh? Here's why:

  1. It's an adventure tale about two guys going on a journey and exercising feats of strength that would rival gods. They also have awesome chemistry. A selling point I liked is that this epic is sort of a coming-of-age story too (although Gilgamesh is probably in his mid-twenties to early thirties, I think) but considering his arrogance and grand sense of entitlement, Gilgamesh acts like some teenage boy at times, and there is a lot of room for emotional maturity and development which does happen by the nearing end of this epic, so that's nice.
  2. The depiction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, his loyal companion, is arguably the first recorded 'bromance' in human history! Ungirdle your loins, ladies, if you're into that sort of stuff like I am. Homoerotic subtext is to be had (sometimes even hilariously at that), but I'm also okay with the simple 'guy love' aspect shared by these two because it's truly through Enkidu that Gilgamesh learned humility, heroic sacrifice, and the value of friendship.
  3. Gilgamesh's personal growth and eventual acceptance of his mortality are the central themes of this enthralling epic. No one has grown as much as Gilgamesh has after a few instances of rude awakening and losses along the way. He is a mighty, arrogant king who has finally learned how to be a good shepherd to his flock/subjects in his kingdom Uruk, as well as appreciate the simple pleasures in life. He basically coveted immortality but achieved it by letting such false ambitions go because in return, he does become immortalized through this epic.

It was only recently when the epic's tablets were finalized for what is widely known as its canon. You see, there have been so many translations, considering there are a handful versions of the tablets where this story was taken from. The audiobook recording I listened to has four tracks and they're easy enough to digest. The narrator sounded like a grandfather sitting by your bedside and telling you stories, and he has a firmness to his voice and diction that would keep you interested. I particularly enjoyed some offhand and colorful descriptions about the most banal things present in the narrative, and would jeer and make varied noises of approval and disgust; sometimes I'd even downright start talking over the narration when something catches my ear. So it was pretty much an interactive experience for me. Here is a succinct summary of each track:

TRACK ONE: The Bold and the Beautiful

Gilgamesh is a sexy, strong and confident king of the pristine and majestic city of Uruk. He's also two-thirds divine and one-third mortal. His mother is a goddess named Ninsun (whom he is in pretty close commune with for the first part of the tale), and his father is a priest-king with magical abilities named Lugalbanda. Fiercely loved by his people and very much favored by other Sumerian gods, Gilgamesh is basically hot shit and comes from the most privileged background you can imagine. The problem with Gilgi is that he knows he's hot shit and he's not afraid to reap the benefits of that. The story opens with pretty much how Jane Austen opens Emma--by describing the seemingly flawless qualities of the main character whom we all suppose to root for and sort of despise along the way as well. After listing down Gilgi's positive qualities, the story then continues with the bitching and moaning of his subjects in Uruk, citing that a king should be a shepherd who guides his flock but Gilgi has been slacking off. Not only is he not doing his job --he's also being a terrible douchebag.

He's the Barney Stinson of the ancient world

He essentially beats the crap out of any man who is capable of fighting him just to prove he's a badass; and then sleeps with every woman he can get his hands on. No nobleman's wife or peasant's daughter is safe. My personal favorite pastime of his is when he devirginizes brides on their honeymoon before their husbands even get a chance to lay with them. No one can say 'HELL NO' to Gilgamesh because's he's a sexy demigod king who takes and takes and takes. But the people of Uruk decided that they have had it, and complained to the gods, "Yo, you made the damn fool, now go create his equal!" And his equal was no other than a creature made of clay and he was named Enkidu. There was only one problem with his creation--he's a mindless beast who hangs around jungle animals because he believed he is one of them. To solve this problem, someone sent a harlot named Shamat who apparently can turn any beast into a man by educating him in her "womanly arts"...if you know what I mean.

Oh, you don't, actually, because Enkidu's education supposedly (and without exaggeration, if the text is to be believed) lasted for an ENTIRE WEEK. Even I did not see that coming. I love the passages where Shamat was instructed to fully immerse him in her womanly arts so he will forget his affinity with the jungle animals and recognize that he is a man who is bestowed with sexy times. Shamat the harlot was very caring too, and helped Enkidu internalize his consciousness as a human being. This fully registers when he catches wind about a proud king in Uruk who is very powerful and unbeatable. Enkidu was understandably curious and intrigued to know more about this king, and Shamat encouraged him to confront said dude since Enkidu expressed that he wanted to meet Gilgamesh because he wants to fight him--but, more than anything, he was also seeking a friend. 

And as kismet would have it, Enkidu meets Gilgamesh; Gilgamesh who was just about to enter a hut to sexy-times a virgin bride. Enkidu literally puts a foot between Gilgi and the hut he is about to enter and the deity-king was not pleased to be interrupted. Enkidu who is shacking up with a harlot (hey, it's monogamous!) and has a job as a night watchman back in the farm, obviously disapproves of how Gilgi sluts it up with other men's wives. So a fight ensued where they beat each other to a pulp. And then they kissed and became BFFs. This was a momentous meeting, according to Mommy Ninsun and she is happy to adopt Enkidu as her son. To further bro-it up with Enkidu, Gilgamesh suggests that they go the Cedar Forest to defeat and kill Humbaba, a monstrous demigod. The elders and his advisors were not happy and a collective face-palm ensued when Gilgi was undeterred and even asked for Mommy Ninsun's blessing for the journey. She gave it, and tasked Enkidu to protect her darling child at all times. The sun-god Shamash accompanies them too as some deus-ex-machina insurance or something.

And the bromance commences!

TRACK TWO: The Young and the Restless

The travel buddies spend most of their time hiking the woods and sleeping. Gilgamesh received a total of five ominous dreams which provided symbolic imagery that hint to the deadliness of Humbaba. He was legitimately scared for the first time in his life but Enkidu was chill and dismisses the dreams. He reassures his friend that if there is terror in his heart, he should get rid of it. Self-doubt will defeat him and backing out from a fight will not give him peace. So Gilgi pushes on and confronts said Humbaba who is borne of the mountain and never had parents to raise him. The gist that I got from their trash talk is basically Humbaba stressing that being a strong force of nature is all that he is and that Gilgamesh has other things going for him so he should just leave Humbaba alone. For a while Gilgamesh looked like he was going to cave but right before that, Humbaba was insulting Enkidu and claimed he will disembowel Gilgi and feed him to the birds if they don't go away. It angered Enkidu who always had this streak of self-righteousness to him, and demanded that Gilgi should kill the bastard. Gilgi obliged right after their other companion Shamash captured Humbaba so he won't escape. So they killed him, chopped down some big tree and fashioned it into a raft, and then the BFFs started to ride through the Euphrates river to get home, taking Humbaba's decapitated head with them.

Some time during the journey, Gilgamesh was cleaning himself in the river and because he is sex on a stick now naked and wet, the goddess of desire Ishtar took notice of him and offered him grand things including herself if he accepts her proposal to be her new husband. Flattered as he may be, Gilgi spurned her advances anyway and listed the reasons why he ain't tapping that fine ass (and I assume to the sound of Enkidu beat-boxing because, maaaan, he really let her down hard). He not only went into detail about  her past lovers who all met cruel fates by her hand, he also began to describe who she is as a goddess, woman and lover with this passage:

I have a feeling that mommy dearest Ninsun had warned Gilgamesh in advance not to fall for Ishtar, and she probably explained to him exactly why, hence his recital of all those on-point soul-crushing truth nuggets about said goddess of desire. In the audiobook I listened to, I preferred the translation, "You are the sandal that trips the wearer". I can't help but giggle at such a light-hearted insult. Gilgamesh's point is simply that she is too proud and vengeful to warrant his affection and loyalty, and he's got better options waiting for him (hell, he can have a pick of the virgins in his kingdom) and that also includes bromancing it up with Enkidu which he would rather do anyway. 

In case his blatant repugnance of her wasn't clear enough, this happens: right after getting rejected, Ishtar beseeches the help of her father Anu to send Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, to avenge her. She blackmailed daddy by claiming she will cause the zombie apocalypse if he doesn't comply to her wishes (apparently she has a power to raise the undead or some shit). Anu gave in to his bratty princess of a daughter and so the Bull followed Gilgamesh and Enkidu back to Uruk where it caused a widespread devastation. To save the city before it falls into ruins, the BFFs dispose Gulganna using guy love and team work, and offer the bull's heart to Shamash, probably to show him that the duo didn't need his divine assistance to kill the damn thing. Ishtar cries like a little bitch and--to silence her--GILGAMESH THROWS ONE OF THE LEGS OF THE BULL AT HER FACE! And he does it with this killer line: "That is the closest thing you will get to me touching you!" That's right--with a bull's leg to the face!!

TRACK THREE: Dark Shadows

Uruk celebrates the victory of their king and his companion but the happy times are short-lived for Enkidu dreams of his future later that night. This is when the epic suddenly takes a rather sharp route to hurtful feels! Because of the murder of Humbaba and Gulganana, Enkidu was marked for death. He got mad about this because aftr all he was created from clay solely to be an equal to an amazing man like Gilgamesh; Enkidu was then made conscious of his humanity, and now he was only going to perish in the end by being sentenced to death? He thought it was unfair because he had learned to live, met a friend, and enjoyed what life offered--only to find out that it can all be taken away once he dies. Enraged and scared, Enkidu started cursing everything except Gilgi. Even the poor harlot Shamat received his curses. Now that was uncalled for because Shamat was a pretty cool chick, actually. She helped him transition and was patient with him all the time. Thanks to Shamash's interjection, Enkidu does eventually realize what a shithead he is for cursing the very woman who turned him into a civilized being and introduced him to Gilgamesh, so he blesses her instead. 

Afterwards, Enkidu was then plagued by more sinister dreams and for twelve days his condition just continued to deteriorate. He dreamt about being snatched by an eagle and entering the underworld he deemed as the 'house of dust' which showed him horrific images of the other trapped souls in it. He told Gilgamesh all of this in detail and his BFF started crying. Bravely, he tried to reassure Enkidu with one of the most poignant quotes from this entire epic:

“Why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of his life is sorrow.” 

Unfortunately, Gilgamesh never followed his own ad vice. Anyway, Gilgamesh stayed by Enkidu's bedside in those twelve agonizing days,but  the other man never got better, and the breaking point was when he started lamenting that he would not even die during a heroic battle but simply by dying out of a sickness in the heart. He was basically so overwhelmed by his looming death that he died because of that anxiety. Yes, Enkidu's body just fails and he dies. It was so traumatic for the deity-king who had never loved anyone aside from his own damn selfish self, and that person he treated as a brother, an equal, his platonic lover--is now gone forever. It also made Gilgamesh contemplate about his own mortality. After all, he is still one-third mortal, and that was when he was struck in the face just how fleeting it could be for him too. Gilgamesh LOSES HIS FUCKING SHIT LIKE YOU WOULDN'T BELIEVE!!

This is how he has undergone the five stages of death:

  • DENIAL ---> "What is this darkness that holds you now?" Gilgamesh whispers as he presses a hand to Enkidu's chest but there was no heartbeat. He laments profusely, even knowing that Enkidu is really gone and cannot hear him. But he doesn't stop talking to his friend's corpse, caressing the face and weeping uncontrollably.
  • ANGER --->  Once he covered up Enkidu's corpse, he started wailing and tearing out his own hair and clothes. He made sure everyone in Uruk knew what happened and commanded his subjects to erect a statue of his friend. Gilgamesh was overcome by a mixture of emotions he hasn't felt before and he reacted very violently to them.
  • BARGAINING --->  Gilgamesh's eulogy was one of the most painful things I have ever heard! He urged every living thing in the world--from the mountains and the trees to the people who live in it; those who both knew and didn't know Enkidu--to mourn his death, to weep as Gilgamesh is doing now, because he doesn't want Enkidu to be alone--to be forgotten. He wanted his friend's death to matter to everyone and not just to him. He also stressed that Enkidu was his greatest treasure and no amount of jewels or riches in his own kingdom could match him. It was heartbreaking to see such a proud man in his most vulnerable moment.
  • DEPRESSION ---> For seven days and seven nights, Gilgamesh grieved and was inaccessible to everyone. To honor Enkidu, he started to live in the wilderness too, forsaking his crown and abandoning his riches. He finally admitted to himself that he is afraid of death. He doesn't want to die. He doesn't want to be forgotten. Utterly bereaved, still very selfish, stubborn and lonely, Gilgamesh begins a quest to secure immortality and the track ends with him traveling to meet an actual immortal who can help him achieve his desire.

I'm not going to spoil how The Epic of Gilgamesh ends and will instead leave you with this cliffhanger, urging you to pick up a copy of this when you do find the time. My final thoughts about this story are simply this: It's a truly stirring and transcendent piece of literature. It is definitely the very first story in human history that spawned all other stories since which concern man's existential crisis about life and death, and his search for eternal life because of his fear of irrelevance and endings. It's also a tale about the value of friendship, the struggles and victories of individualism, the repercussions of hubris, and the acceptance that nothing is ever permanent. 

Like most misguidedly confident heroes, Gilgamesh started out vain, conceited and privileged in this story that he thought he is the center of the universe. Upon meeting his equal, he learned to share and grow alongside this companion, and when said companion dies, his demise made Gilgamesh more self-aware of his brevity as a half-mortal being. Like any flawed creature, he tried to escape the inevitable, refused to listen to his elders, insisted on getting his way, and stopped learning and changing for the better. Eventually, he does come to terms that everything ends...but not everything is forgotten. The fact that you are reading this review of mine after I listened to an audiobook about this story which has been translated across generations is proof that immortality can be achieved through writing and history. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a testament to how stories of universal truth never fade in memory. This story is more than three thousand years old! It is worth picking up not just for posterity but because it's a real gem and I promise you won't regret it. There are tropes, archetypes and themes here that are still being spread in the landscape of our dynamic pop culture and collective consciousness as the human race. 

I will leave you with this quote that succinctly summarizes this epic: 

“Gilgamesh was called a god and a man; Enkidu was an animal and a man. This is the story of their becoming human together.”



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